A Bar Of Soap

December 2009 would be the last time the three of us would have a good time together. Everything would change on New Year’s Eve. For the moment my life was still in order, as much as a life that just fell apart can be in order, to begin with. With the loss of responsibilities, there comes a feeling of freedom I did not expect.

No more bills to pay, no worries other than survival. All my life it had puzzled me how poor people could feel so much joy. In Africa, I had been stunned when I watched women dance and sing while they were working in the fields, their hungry children tied to their backs. What was their secret to happiness and why did I not feel it? After all, I was working hard, had everything they could only dream off, yet they seemed to have a better life.

My husband and I didn’t have to worry about bills or payments anymore. No more talks about employees or deadlines. We had food and a bed to sleep in at night, and our dogs were with us. We were free like birds. Yet somehow it felt we were sitting in a cage.

“Whenever you need something, just let me know and I get it for you.” The offer, which at first had seemed so generous, quickly felt like we were held on a very short leash. Back then I learned what dignity really is. It’s an inner feeling of self-worth a belief in yourself.

“No matter how poor you are, you can always afford a piece of soap and clean yourself.” One of my Grandma’s favorite quotes. She mentioned it often and I never forgot. Dignity works the same way, that’s my humble opinion. No matter how poor you are, you can always afford dignity. Nobody can take it away from you until you surrender it willingly, and I wasn’t willing -never will be.

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Having to ‘order’ what we needed, no matter if it was cheap cookies, a lighter, or feminine hygiene products, felt odd. We had to write it down or call her, and she got it for us. No more choosing of the brands I once liked, or the flavor of shampoo I had been used to. She decided for us and we thanked her. I felt like a kid without an allowance.

Why was I so ungrateful? Why could I not just surrender without asking questions? I felt terrible. Was I arrogant, ignorant -or both? Was I paranoid or careful? Did my husband feel the same way?

When I mentioned that I wanted to got and get a haircut, she insisted I would join her on her trip to her hair salon instead. I got a $15 haircut in a barbershop from a Chinese lady, who knew what she was doing. It was the greatest, funkiest short haircut ever, and I loved it. It was so different from what I had been used to. My friend gave me the OOPS-LOOK when she saw me, and I could tell she was surprised when she watched me hugging the tiny Asian lady. Coolest cut ever -by a mile! An inner feeling told me the session didn’t go as she had expected it, and again I felt bad about my thoughts.

I started to feel more and more like we were servants, and no matter how much I tried to shake the feeling off, I didn’t succeed. Was it arrogance, a false entitlement feeling, the missing ability to truly feel humble, or maybe just a bitter taste of reality? Was I imagining things?

Why was I questioning my friend’s motives, to begin with? She had taken me in. She had taken my husband in. She let us keep our dogs. What was wrong with me? The feeling of being wrong tortured me.

Every day, when it wasn’t freezing, raining, or snowing, I walked around the neighborhood with the fliers I had printed. People came and stopped by the sausage kitchen on their way home. We sold a lot. 40 people at my friend’s work had ordered a stuffed, smoked turkey for Christmas. Every afternoon she came home with more orders. Sausages, jerky, Boudin Balls. We worked twelve hours every day to keep up with the demand.

The money started rolling in, and it was spent quickly. A brand-new register was placed on the reception counter, more meet, another freezer got delivered. The more money we made, the more she spent.

We now offered all the Cajun sausages besides two we missed the recipes for. The famous Andouille sausage and a Crawfish (or) Shrimp Boudin.

“Can you figure out how to make it?” my friend had asked me, and I had been wondering about it myself. If you are a good cook you can come with your own recipes. If you know how to bake, you can invent your own version of your favorite sweet treats. Would making a new sausage be so different? And if I needed help who where would I find it?

How do you ‘create’ a sausage you have never tasted? My friend had planned to drive back home to Louisiana the second weekend in December, and I asked her to bring back as many samples of the famous sausages as she could find. She would be gone for four days. A week before she left, we were already instructed to check in every morning and evening. She would leave us $50 for emergencies only.

Now looking back while writing this I know what I needed most back then. I needed to get paid, even if it would have been only $5 or $10 per day. I wanted to earn something, needed to earn something -not just work it off. Ungrateful?

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is ungrateful.jpg

My friend wasn’t into Christmas, had long ago decided it was just too much work. I on the other hand, to this day, still uphold and cherish some of the Austrian traditions I had been raised with. St. Nikolaus Day, the 6th of December is a day I always acknowledge. Saint Nikolaus, the Austrian and German Santa, who comes to the kid’s houses to praise or scold, and who gives out jute bags with mandarines, nuts, and small chocolates. I didn’t want to let it go.

Also, I was hoping I would be able to somehow get or make a small Advent’s wreath with candles for the kitchen counter, or perhaps even a very small Christmas tree for the sausage kitchen. She didn’t want to hear any of it -even though she knew how I felt about it. I would have paid for it with our money. Was I willing to waste our money?

I let it go -or so it seemed.

We had been borrowing her car in the afternoon and evenings. With the backseat full of sample boxes we approached all the Cajun restaurants close by and in the next city, and there were many. Bars, restaurants, hotels -we made our round. At first, I was timid and didn’t know how to sell ‘our’ product, but quickly I grew into it and felt more comfortable. We left a $40-dollar-sample-box with fresh sausages and appetizers with the owners, and most of them called back. Some placed a small order, other’s went all in right away.

I needed success somehow, and so I called the Hilton Hotel after I had noticed an advertisement for their Mardi Gras week in February 2010. My friend gave me a crash course on Mardi Gras (French for Fat Tuesday.) The Louisiana version on how to celebrate the end of the Christian Lent sounded like so much fun.

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In ice and snow, we drove to the Hilton on December 5, 2009. I asked for the manager and the chef, the receptionist gave me a funny look but nobody ever dares to question you, if you hold your head up high, and you look them straight in the eye -preferable with confidence.

She came back, asked me to sit and wait, asked if I wanted to order something. I couldn’t afford anything, so I declined politely. I waited for almost 1 hour. Then the manager came, inspected me from head to toe. Finally, he asked me, “How can I help you?”

“Actually it’s the other way around,” I heard myself say, and I wondered if all the second-hand pot smoke had gone directly to my brain. What was I thinking? I wanted something from them. I handed him the sample box. “I thought your chef and you might want to try some of our Cajun products to make your Mardi Gras buffet the talk of the town.”

He looked at me again, didn’t say anything. How long did he look at me? An hour? It surely felt like it. I did not blink, showed no emotion. Goodness, I am a translator, I was trained to show no reaction, no matter what I heard, no matter who I translated for. “Follow me,” he said and he walked away. I followed him like a little puppy. He pointed to a booth and asked me to take a seat. Five minutes later he came back with a chef, or perhaps even THE CHEF“The kitchen has instructions to cook them all and we will try them together.”

It was the first and last time I ever saw somebody try our sausages. Right in front of me they discussed the taste, the consistency, praised and critiqued. It was a free lesson in cooking and tasting I will never forget.

“I will call you,” he said and I was dismissed.

“How did it go?” My husband asked when I got back in the car. I shrugged my shoulders. “No fucking clue,” I said frustrated, which made him laugh out loud. It was a statement you don’t get from me too often.

On our way home we stopped at a grocery store. I bought clementines, nuts, and a chocolate Santa. $15 was spent to honor my roots, my grandma, and my childhood. I would celebrate the 6th of December, the Austrian St. Nikolaus Day after all. I couldn’t afford it, yet I needed it. Sometimes I just don’t make any sense.

My friend wasn’t happy with the Hilton result, neither was I. I had expected more. The Hilton didn’t call the next day or the day after that but they called the following Monday and placed a substantial order.

I smiled like a fool all day long.

Bunter: The sweet German festive tradition | SBS Food
A typical Austrian/German Nikolaus plate.

23 thoughts on “A Bar Of Soap

  1. Your account of those days could be a movie! Not only do you write well, you leave the reader waiting and wanting more, and quickly at that. 😁 Want so much for everything to end well for you.

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  2. I’m so glad you took the steps to honor the traditions that meant so much to you. After losing so much, holding on to pleasant memories was a necessary step to keeping you from going under entirely! It took real courage to “cold call” any businesses, but Hilton? That’s really something bold. And it tells me the sausage was really good!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • We are still making sausages to this day, just in smaller amounts and different ones. I have RA and stay away from processed food, eating what we prepared and knowing what is in there, helps me to live a mostly pain-free life.
      I am not sure if I was bold or just desperate. I assume it was desperation. What could they do to me? 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. So, now I’m wondering what happens on New Year’s Eve. And I am also wondering what the weed dealer was doing during all the 12 hours days to make everything. Such an interesting story!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well, Ben was still around, but worked mostly on his truck. The pace in the kitchen didn’t suit him. He helped a bit, but never for long. He didn’t like the new rules, that everything had to look uniformed. If you offer and sell Boudin Balls, the since of each one should be as close as possible. He just wasn’t it to it, or had given up.
      New Year’s was eventful.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’d love to try your traditional Austrian/German Nikolaus plate! Your comments about “need[ing] to get paid -not just work it off” reminded me of my own experience when my two sons and I first arrived in Los Angeles and began working with my sister without pay in her new business startup.

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    • How did it work for you guys? I suppose working for your sister might be a big different. How did you prey away? Did she start paying you, or did you take a second job.

      I take it you are a first generation American like I am? Where did you come from if you don’t mind me asking.

      Liked by 1 person

      • The setup complicated our relationship. I left to find work and her project folded shortly thereafter.
        My sons and I moved from Brazil to Los Angeles in October 2003. I was born in Guyana, a former British colony with social-political-economic ties with the Caribbean Region. My sons were two and four years old when my then husband and I migrated to Brazil in 1987.

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